I don’t know what woke me up just now, but my head feels like there’s an overweight clown performing cartwheels in my skull. I hold my head thinking my eyes are going to pop out at any time like a Merrie Melodies character. The man sleeping in the bunk above me asks me if I’m okay. I groan and tell him yes, but even so, I’m still not sure.
Getting up, I stretch, shaking off the fatigue which enveloped my frail body throughout the night. It’s cold this morning. The chatter of my teeth can wake the dead. My feet feel frozen. I look at them. They seem bloodless, like the frigid stilts of a corpse. I don’t understand why the room is so gelid. Yes, it is a rather spacious place, like the schoolhouse I used to go to just weeks ago. I just wished they heated it up. Quietly, I turn and gaze at the man sleeping above me.
“Jacob,” I whisper. “Are you awake, too?”
“Please,” he answers without opening his eyes, “today is going to be just like the rest – hard. Let me get a little more sleep.”
Nodding, I turn and walk towards the center of the room. I stifle a giggle because, even to this day, its wooden floor, ceiling and walls remind me of a giant outhouse. Looking around, it seems like everyone else is sleeping, not just Jacob. The sun, I notice through one of the small square windows, is just beginning to rise. I’m surprised that I’m the first one awake, considering I’m the youngest.
I’ve been here with these men – I counted thirty the other day – since I was brought here two weeks ago by strangers in black cars. My father, Papa Sam, told me to just go along with them and everything will be all right. He can’t fool me, though. At fourteen, I’ve already seen a lot, probably more than other boys my age. I’ve seen people getting shot. I’ve seen young girls running away with foreigners, probably to the nearest borders. I’ve even seen grown women crying in the street although I never knew why. So even though papa said to be brave, the lines by his eyes betrayed the notion that something was wrong.
Because there are no other boys here in this wooden cottage my age, I occupy my time by playing checkers with myself using strips of cloth for the pieces and lines drawn in the dirty floor as a checkerboard. As usual, I win. My invisible partner isn’t all that much of a challenge. I don’t know why he lets me win. I won’t beat him or take him away like the outsiders who are bad to us.
The sun is coming up now. I can hear roosters crowing in the distance. Soon, the grownups will be awakened and taken out of this room for hours. I’ve learned not to make deep friendships with any of them because, sometimes, one of them won’t come back and I’ll have to befriend someone new. That’s not easy to do considering how quiet they tend to be, not like the kids I used to played with in the past.
Even though it’s hard here – bleak, as some of the men say – one of the things that sustain us is the Schubert Quartet. They are a group of four men who sleep in bunks on the other side of the room. At night, they get together and sing or hum their individual parts of string quartets. So far, all they’ve performed is music by Franz Schubert, hence the nickname. They are a wonderful troop. I know the man who hums first violin is named Ben but I’m not sure what the others’ names are. I’m sure Jacob knows but, like the others, doesn’t talk much. As a matter of fact, he’s quite secretive. I’ve asked him about his wife, children, his job, everything. His answer is usually the same – “I don’t wish to talk about it.” Jacob, I think, must be the saddest man in the universe. The depth of his eyes speaks volumes.
During the day time, the outsiders take me to a room to sew clothes for a few hours. They place me in an area with about twenty silent women. Since I’m forbidden to strike up conversations with any of them, I just do as I’m told. The ladies, with their thin, wan faces, seem sad. Some of the younger ones are beautiful, but they are still melancholy. There even used to be a girl around my age. Her name was Annie and she had straggly brown hair. Unlike the others, she never covered her head with a scarf. I only saw her once. She was pretty, but one day she left and I never saw her again. I’d built up the courage to ask an outsider what happened to her but he told me to be quiet and continue my work. I don’t care much for the outsiders. They can be caustic sometimes.
At dinner time I return to the big room. All my housemates also return. One by one they file in like dreary ants in a glass zoo. Every single one of them looks tired with slumped shoulders and the mask of defeat covering their faces. I secretly count them as they walk through the door. One, two, three…twenty nine. Hmm. One less than last night. I can’t really tell who is missing, but I also know better than to ask.
An outsider in a black suit with a rifle strapped across his back brings in a huge aluminum pot of soup, places it on a rickety table, and walks right back out. The men line up to the table as one person ladles soup into each man’s bowl. Tonight, sitting on my bunk, I notice the soup has carrots and potatoes. That’s a change from yesterday when the soup contained only slices of beets. I had a hard time swallowing the crimson goulash as I don’t like beets, but since hunger had me caught in its iron grip, I had no choice.
After dinner, I lie down on my bed, prop my head up with my right hand, and think about my mother. I wonder where she is and what she’s doing. Never the strict type, she allowed me to stay up as long as I wanted, even encouraged my school friends to sleep over if they wished. Papa Sam, a robust man with curly black hair like mine, always groaned she was spoiling me, but she didn’t care. I was their only child and enjoyed the spoils of being the lone offspring.
My good friend, Nathan, wasn’t as lucky. He had a big family with three brothers and three sisters and always seemed to think he was the black sheep, the forgotten one. The noise in their household was reason enough for him to spend nights with me at my house. I wonder where Nathan is now. I haven’t seen him since I got here. He was fun to play checkers with. Yes, he usually beat me, but I think I secretly allowed it because I had no other friend.
The moon, I notice, is especially bright tonight. If there is a man on the moon, I wonder if he is watching us just like I’m watching him now. I wonder what he must be thinking. Maybe he’s also wondering why his city is changing so quickly and probably asking why all the shops are closing down. He’s probably wondering where everyone is going to. I know I did. I watched my own neighborhood turn into a ghost town and there was no one around to tell me why.
Just as I’m yawning and starting to drift off to sleep, the Schubert Quartet starts. Jacob whispers to me that they’re singing the allegro from Schubert’s Quartet No. 3 in B flat. I take his word for it. He seems knowledgeable. Jacob is a wonder to me. For an educated man, I expected he would be full figured, a generous display of good eating and delightful wines. Since he is skinny, I think perhaps he has some intestinal disease. His teeth are rotten, though, so maybe he caught something I’ve never heard of. It’s kind of funny how he, as well as a few other men here, cough and wretch a lot. I’ve seen their tissues of blood and sputum, and although it put me off, it still made me wonder.
I awaken the following morning after some outsiders kick the front door open. All of them, their guns drawn, storm into the frigid room. With the door wide open, a frigid breeze cuts through the barracks like a witch with a razor blade.
“Everyone up!” one outsider shouts. “Right now!”
Being an easy sleeper, I am the first to stand. Within seconds, the 29 men get to their feet.
“All of you men have been selected,” the outsider claims, “for a new experiment!”
Immediately, some of my roommates start crying. I don’t understand. It is just an experiment, so why the tears? In school we had experiments all the time. The science teachers taught us how to create clouds using water and dry ice. We studied physical properties such as centrifugal force, friction, heat dispersion and so on, so I’m not alarmed at all.
“Everybody line up!” another outsider yells.
“What about me?” I ask, raising my hand with my empty stomach crying to be fed.
The outsider removes his pistol from his side holster and points it at me.
“You, too!” he orders. “Stand in formation!”
Compliant, I do as he requests and stand in line with the men.
“Good!” the outsider yells again. “You gentlemen ought to feel privileged. Not every cottage has this honor. Now march outside where you’ll be greeted by the Obersturmführer!”
I swallow a small lump that had stuck in my throat. I don’t know what an Obersturmführer is, but if he’s conducting the experiment, I hope it can wait till after breakfast because I’m hungry.